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“Let’s Raise A Toast!” Aged Care Leaders Joke About Kerosene Baths

An email exchange started with a questionable joke, but it led to concerns over the independence of some aged-care advocates.

As jokes go, it was a bad one.

In April 2010, Richard Gray, director of aged care services at Catholic Health Australia, urged fellow members of the National Aged Care Alliance (NACA) to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

"I ask that you all raise a glass," he wrote in an email to dozens of people who work in the aged-care industry. Gray then proposed a toast: "I ask that you all raise a glass and toast the person who inspired us to form NACA, Bronwyn Bishop. Make sure there is no kerosene in the glass, that's for the bath!!!!!!!!"

The reference was unmistakable. In 2000, a Victoria nursing home was caught bathing elderly people in water laced with kerosene, an archaic method of treating scabies. The kerosene caused skin to blister, and rashes erupted over many residents' bodies. The episode attracted intense media attention and tarnished Bishop's political career. It also damaged the relationship between the then minister, the Department of Health and Aged Care (as it was then called) and the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency, the body that oversaw conditions in aged care facilities.

The email, made public today for the first time, elicited responses from many people considered leaders of Australia's aged-care industry - people usually known for speaking up on behalf of the frail and elderly.

While some may say the email exchange amounts to little more than banter among colleagues, experts and advocates told The Global Mail they see it as illustrative of a deeper problem of mixed interests and cosy relationships between the people at the top of the aged-care industry.

Lynda Saltarelli, head of the Melbourne-based advocacy group Aged Care Crisis, said she was "concerned by the tone and thrust of the comments".

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"What would the residents bathed in kerosene and their families have thought, had they known the way their misfortune is perceived by industry leaders?" she asked.

Following the kerosene comment, several leaders in the aged-care industry chimed in to the email chain, with comments that they would down a South Australian red, or a celebratory sake. None of the emailed comments seen by The Global Mail explicitly questioned the appropriateness of the joke.

One reply came from Ian Yates, chief executive of the Council on the Ageing - known as COTA - one of Australia's leading advocacy groups for people over the age of 50. "I shall certainly raise a glass or two of good red," he wrote, "to celebrate what has become a very important national vehicle for aged-care reform." Yates reminded the group that he had personally convinced his organisation to join the National Alliance, which he described as a, “provider, professional dominated body.”

What would the residents bathed in kerosene and their families have thought had they known the way their misfortune is perceived by industry leaders?

That comment troubled experts and advocates interviewed by The Global Mail who said the comment suggested an "unhealthily cosy relationship" between consumer advocates and industry.

"There is a place for dialogue between providers and community groups intent on improving care, provided the community group maintains its independent focus and integrity, and has an independent, critical position," Saltarelli said via email.

Yates's role is especially significant because his group was handed a $410,000 contract in July 2011 to take charge of the government's consultations with communities across the country about aged care reform. The meetings, which wrapped up in January 2012, varied in size from 40 to 200 attendees, says Yates. The views recorded at the meetings will inform how the government responds to a set of controversial proposals that would reshape aged-care funding in Australia.

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Copy of the $410,000 contract between COTA and the Department of Health and Ageing.

But the fact that government paid COTA to undertake the consultations on its behalf troubles some leaders in the aged care industry. John Ireland, recently retired chief executive of Southern Cross Care, a large not-for-profit aged care provider, questions the independence of a consultation process that is paid for by the government. "Whether it is fact or not, the outcome of those sorts of consultations can be seen to be tainted, because it's funded by the government," he says.

Of course, organisations in many fields receive funding to perform a large range of services. But Ireland says the particulars of this contract are troubling because the government has outsourced its consultations to a group that would ordinarily be doing the work independently.

"I don't see that as being the role of the peak body, to take government funding to do its core job," he says. "If you get money for training, that's a different kettle of fish entirely. If you get money to present an information package, that's different too, because it's fact."

Whether it is fact or not, the outcome of those sorts of consultations can be seen to be tainted, because it’s funded by the government

Yates disputes any suggestion that his organisation's independence has been compromised, adding that through COTA's engagement with industry, he has been able to shift the debate to focus more on consumer rights.

"The notion that we're in the government's pocket is a bit bemusing, when what we're engaged in - in aged care - is a campaign to get the government to do something," he says.

COTA has been instrumental in shaping some of the proposals that the government is currently considering, he says. The proposals would hand more freedom to the organisations that run aged-care facilities but would also, according to Yates, benefit consumers who would have aged-care entitlements better tailored to their needs. He says there's nothing unusual about receiving government funding to undertake community consultations.

“The notion that we’re in the government’s pocket is a bit bemusing, when what we’re engaged in — in aged care — is a campaign to get the government to do something.”

"COTA Australia, along with many other organisations, receives regular peak body funding from the Commonwealth for its role. And COTA has a strong record of being critical of the government when it needs to," he says.

Indeed, COTA was not the only group paid to consult with the community. Alzheimer's Australia also conducted community meetings, under a contract worth $80,000.

Yates says his group approached the government with the idea of the consultations because the organisation wanted to ensure consumers' voices were heard. The contract was awarded without any public-tender process.

The department declined to make available the official who was responsible for overseeing the contract, but said in an emailed statement that COTA's role allowed them to access "invaluable" information about community views. The no-bid contracting process complied with procurement guidelines, and COTA has not received any other contracts from the department during the past five years, according to the statement.

But the department's reliance on a consumer group to gather community sentiment is indicative of a broader trend, according to Eva Cox, a public intellectual who is currently a research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney.

"The government has become, in its own way, more dependent on good relationships with the industry," she says. "And the industry has become - including the not-for-profit sector - more dependent on the government. And that raises the question of who really can represent the consumers."

Richard Gray, whose joke started the email chain, told The Global Mail that the comment was made in jest and was not intended "in any way shape or form to be offensive".

"The view I've always taken is that what's in the best interests of the consumers is in the best interests of the providers," he says.

7 comments on this story
by Linda

The sad fact is that stories about nursing home neglect and abuse just keep on coming. And the frail people who live in our homes generally can't speak up, or advocate, for themselves. So it is critical that those who purport to advocate on their behalf are totally independent and not beholden to governments and providers. It is extremely disheartening to learn that representatives of COTA (an organisation largely funded by government) and others feel free to make light of the suffering of the vulnerable people they are meant to be assisting. All this raising glasses to themselves and jokes about 'good reds' shows huge disrespect to frail, nursing home residents.

February 24, 2012 @ 8:42am
by Jane

Richard Gray appears to come from the same school of humour as Alexander Downer.

Childish humour can be excused in many circumstances, however such a 'joke' from one in his position in aged care services is an abomination.

February 24, 2012 @ 10:26pm
by Emma

The really worrying thing about this story is the simplistic way in which industry leaders equate the financial wellbeing of their organisations with that of their clients. Council on the Ageing is not a consumers body- it represents a range of service providing organisations and various other interests. It appears to have made up its mind that consumers are happy to give up their homes to pay for residential care - but low income home owners are not even aware of the idea, let alone support it.

February 26, 2012 @ 1:14pm
by jane

Lets face it, the whole "industry" needs a shake up and the more The Global Mail exposes the better! Richard Grays comment sums up the disrespect shown to many residents in aged care by management types. Thank goodness tor they only have the interest of the residents in aged car at heart....nothing else.

February 26, 2012 @ 10:48pm
Show previous 4 comments
by John Ireland

As I told both Sharon and Joel, Richard Gray is one of the most genuine professionals in Aged Care. He has dedicated his working life to assisting those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable and/or marginalised. His comments were not acceptable but There is no doubt in my mind that he did not intend to cause hurt or offence.

February 27, 2012 @ 9:21pm
by Ian Yates, Chief Executive, COTA Australia

The implications made in this article about both COTA and NACA are disappointing, untrue and entirely misguided. COTA is an independent organisation representing over 500,000 seniors with an overriding objective to promote, improve and protect the wellbeing of older people in Australia.

Our relationship with Government has always been, over many decades, characterised by independent advice and direct representation of the views of older Australians, without fear or favour.

For the past few years COTA has been the lead lobbyist for badly needed reforms in the aged care sector so all Australians can age with choice, dignity and quality care.

Like most community based organisations that lobby government and represent grass roots need we receive government funding that supplements the membership fees our mainly pensioner members pay. Other examples include National Seniors, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Consumer Health Forum, Alzheimers Australia and many more - all of whom speak out forcefully to government.

We make no apology for working with Minister Butler on a national consultation program to ensure consumer voices are heard as the Government and the sector each consider how government should respond to the recommendations of the Productivity Commission.

Is the Global Mail suggesting that consumer views would be more independently gathered if this was done by the Department? The COTA network talks with aged care consumers every day and has directly consulted with many thousands of them about aged care reform over recent years. Consumers trust COTA and talk openly about their concerns and needs. We have enabled them to do that face to face with the Minister in an unprecedented way.

Strange that the Global Mail should go to a major aged care provider figure to question COTA's credentials. It has taken us many years to get acceptance that providers do not speak for consumers, consumers do. Providers are of course overwhelmingly funded by government to manage the current inadequate aged care system.

By 2050 a quarter of Australians will be 65 and over. Governments have applied band-aid on band-aid to try and fix a system that was designed for another time. We can’t afford to apply more ineffective band-aids and COTA, along with the 27 other organisations of NACA, is working tirelessly to push for reforms that put consumers needs and wants first.

March 2, 2012 @ 5:15pm
by MissJane

Ian yates if COTA is the lead Lobbyist for badly needed reforms in the Aged Care Sector then you need to be informed that YOU ARE FAILING BADLY!!!! You need to stop going to your office for the purpose of clocking on and off, which is the same as what these so Called Nursing Homes are doing with our frail elderly. Ian Yates and Richard Gray should get on their knees and pray to god that they do not get old and sick and find themselves in one of these facilities with the type of people who work in and operate these places. What our poor eldelrly are being subjected to is in most cases worse then the Jews to the Gas Chambers. raise a glass of red guys but keep an eye open for old age creeping up before you know it it's going to be you who is going to be mistreated, neglected and abused. What goes around comes around.

May 26, 2013 @ 11:47am
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